Point of View

Farewell to Gossman, a good shepherd

August 17, 2013 

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Catholic Bishop F. Joseph Gossman questions children at Raleigh's Sacred Heart Cathedral following his sermon on the meaning of Ash Wednesday in 1999.

ROBERT WILLETT - 1999 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

— Several years ago two books were left at the door of my house. Each was carefully wrapped in transparent plastic. The yellowing paperbacks were in Latin, tracts on Moral Theology, authored by a Jesuit theologian and published in Rome.

Although I have no idea who left the books, it must have been someone who knew of my interest in the Catholic Church in North Carolina. On the cover of each book was written the name “F.J. Gossman.” On one volume was the date 10/8/57, on the other 1/1/58. There were also the initials “CUA.” Wonder of wonders! These were textbooks used by the young priest studying at the Catholic University of America who, 17 years later, would become the Bishop of Raleigh.

When it was announced that Bishop F. Joseph Gossman had died, I finally unwrapped the books from the plastic in which they had remained sealed. I felt like a paleontologist unwinding the cloths that had encased Egyptian mummies for centuries. I hoped that there might be some notes, some markings that might give hints of how a 27-year old cleric was thinking.

Alas, disappointment. Not only were there no markings, but it didn’t look like the books had been read! Could it be that young Father Gossman didn’t study?

Whether he studied or not, Gossman was awarded a degree in Canon Law, the arcane system by which the Roman Catholic Church is governed. Promising priests are sent to study canon law, work with the bishop of a diocese and eventually become bishops themselves.

Understandably, it’s a process that tends to produce men with a legalistic mentality. Occasionally, a “pastoral bishop” slips through the system. Joseph Gossman was one of them.

Despite his formal legal education, Gossman would become a beloved pastor. Not that he ignored or violated the law, but it was never paramount to him.

In 1975, Gossman succeeded Vincent S. Waters, a “canon law bishop.” While Waters saw the church in military terms, with himself as commander-in-chief, Gossman saw it as a community of faith, with each member, priest or lay person, man or woman, equally deserving of a hearing. At times, during his 31 years as bishop of Raleigh, Gossman was faulted for not acting, not making decisions. But that was his method. He would sit at meetings listening quietly, waiting for consensus.

Some years ago I sat next to Gossman during an interfaith gathering in Raleigh. A Protestant clergyman sat down across the table from us and, not recognizing the Catholic bishop, asked him, “What’s your church?” After a pause, and with a twinkle in his eye, the self-effacing bishop said somewhat sheepishly, “I guess that all of them are mine.” This was something he had learned in those long ago years studying canon law – the bishop is the head pastor of all the churches of his diocese.

Although this was technically true, Gossman did not micromanage diocesan departments and parishes. Early in his tenure, when a pastor asked for permission to do something for which episcopal permission had been required by his predecessor, Gossman replied, “Use your judgment. If you make a mistake I’ll let you know.”

Joseph Gossman was one of the last surviving bishops appointed by Pope Paul VI (1963-78) who during the years immediately after the Vatican Council of the 1960s, looked for men who could lead the church in a more collegial, ecumenical way than had been true during the more combative, triumphalist age that preceded the council.

Hopefully, in Pope Francis we again have a pope who will give priority to the pastoral over the legalistic in the appointment of bishops.

On one occasion, when asked how he wanted to be remembered, Bishop Gossman said: “As someone who loved people and … who let people breathe, not just the air of the Church but the air of life.”

Young Joe Gossman might not have read those musty Latin tomes, but he was a bishop who read people’s hearts and won people’s hearts.

William Powers of Chapel Hill is the author of “Tar Heel Catholics: A History of Catholicism in North Carolina.”

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